How Respectful And Deep Conversations Can Move Us Past Our 'Bumper Sticker Culture'

Jul 5, 2019

"We need each other in ways that we are not always willing to admit," says Baylor University English professor and Austin-based writer and preacher Greg Garrett.

He says that recognition can help us get beyond "bumper sticker culture" and to engage in meaningful conversations even with people of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs.

By "bumper sticker culture," Garrett means, "I've got my bumper [sticker], which tells the world: 'These are my positions, and I hold to these rigidly.' And I'm going to park in the parking garage next to you and your bumper stickers."

But there's no dialogue. "They're just going to shout at each other and remain in that space," he says.

In his book In Conversation: Rowan Williams and Greg Garrett, he models how people move past dueling slogans into more significant and impactful exchanges.

Garrett is a longtime friend of Williams, a Welsh Anglican bishop, theologian, poet and 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Over several days, they had conversations about a wide variety of topics, including politics, literature, theology, pop culture, failure and the power of conversation itself. 

Garrett says their work is proof differences do not have to stand in the way of meaningful connection.

"He is Baron Williams, and the first time I met him he was living in Lambeth Palace," Garrett remembers. "And I was living in a 400-square-foot efficiency apartment over a garage in Austin."

Listen to KUT's interview with Garrett to hear more about the different roles of "like" and "love" in carrying on meaningful conversations.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Greg Garrett: Ultimately, conversation is about coming back to respect; it's about listening. It's about a process, instead of conversion, which is what most “conversation” – and I'm putting big air quotes around that – seems to be about these days. "I'm right; you're wrong. Listen to me and get it right."

KUT:  I think you note in the introduction [to the book] that you believe conversations do have a transformational power. What to you is that transformational power of conversation?

Garrett: If you take conversation seriously, what it means is that I am willing to listen to you and to be aware that as much as I may carry these opinions and these positions, I can learn something from you. There's not a day in class over the last 30 years where I've not learned something because there is this very real sense that I have heard something that I didn't know before.  

KUT: I want to pose a question to you that you pose in the book, and here's the question that you pose: What can people of faith do particularly at a time when they don't feel like their political system answers to them?

Garrett: Whether you're a liberal or a conservative, you don't feel like the system answers to you. And that's part of our discourse at this time, because we set ourselves up in this adversarial position, and we set ourselves up to believe in our victimhood.

The hard thing about this just in terms of conversation is the recognition that we need each other in ways that we are not always willing to admit. What happens if we don't have actual conversation is that we just continue to see the other person as a person who is outside of our experience.

This is what I think all of my years of teaching literature have taught me is there's this universal human understanding of why we're here and what we're supposed to be doing. And we just break it out into our different sort of partisan ways where we think of it politically or religiously or culturally. If we could talk about it and find our shared connections – and I don't I don't mean to be naïve because I know it takes two to tango – but if you can find people of good conscience, I think one of the most powerful things that can happen in our culture right now is for us to find that that common space.  

KUT: One thing that comes up in your conversation is you say that it's important for everyone to have their story recognized and honored, and you say that there are political implications of this concept of everybody having their story recognized and honored. Talk a little bit about the political implications of that concept.

Garrett: That grew out of some conversations that Rowan and I had about Shakespeare and about great films and about great novels. As a novelist, I can tell you every character is the hero of their own story, because we all sort of front and center ourselves and understand ourselves through our own human experience.

I think what happens when we fail to recognize that everybody is the hero of their own story is we diminish their humanity. Every character has reasons for the things that they believe. They have motivations. They have a past. They have a present. There's a brokenness that they're responding to. There are desires that they have.

My mom is Southern Baptist and she is deeply conservative, and she loves our president in ways that I cannot get on board with. But she has reasons for that. She will say something that comes out of her deeply held beliefs and then she will pause for a second and she will say, "I know you don't believe that." And that's an incredible recognition for her that has grown out of conversation.

KUT: What can you say for people who either find themselves in conversations with people like you and your family where there is disagreement? There's not common ground. There may be mutual respect – love, affection ­– but there's not common ground.  

Garrett: I've been doing a lot of work over the last couple of years about reconciliation. I'm drawn back over and over again to the thoughts and teaching of James Baldwin. What Baldwin said is you have to love the person on the opposing side. It doesn't mean "like," by the way, because there are people with whom I have these arguments that I find it really hard to like them but love is a larger, deeper – I mean it's a spiritual calling. There was this very real sense that the spiritual cost of hating was too much to bear.

What Baldwin is saying is we all share the planet. And for us to be in opposing positions – the spiritual corrosiveness of that will eat us alive. But I come back to a secular saying of this which is from one of Cormac McCarthy's novels where he talks about the person that you hate takes up residence in your house and only forgiveness can expel them.